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This page will be used to aid those who are planning a thru-hike or other long distance hike of the Appalachian Trail.
Posting An On-Line Journal
Wildflowers & Plants
How To Prepare
What To Expect
AT Distance Calculator
What is the Appalachian Trail?
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a continuously marked footpath in the Appalachian Mountains that spans 14 states in the eastern U.S. Its northern terminus is Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Its southern terminus is Springer Mtn. in Georgia. The AT is the most popular hiking trail in the world.
How long is the trail?
The trail is approximately 2,165 miles (3,500 kilometers) long.
How many people have hiked its entire length?
Approximately 5,000 people have hiked all of the AT. About 1,500 - 2,000 hikers attempt to hike the AT each year, approximately 12% (200 - 300) succeed.
How long does it take to hike all of the trail?
For those who hike the entire length of the trail in a single trip, most require 5 - 7 months for the entire journey.
What is "thru-hiking"?
Thru-hiking is hiking the entire length of the trail in a single year.
What is "section-hiking"?
Section-hiking is hiking the trail over a longer period of time, usually 2 or more years.
How do hikers get food while thru-hiking?
The eastern portion of the U.S. is heavily populated, and there are many towns close to the trail. Most hikers carry 4 - 7 days worth of food at a time. When they need food, they get off the trail, go into a nearby town, and either buy food at a grocery store, or pick up a food box that has been mailed to them.
Is it dangerous to hike the trail?
Statistically, the trail is a very safe place. However, reasonable caution should be exercised, especially when going into towns, and when hiking or camping near roads. Concerning animals, mainly they just want to be left alone. Most hikers will see a bear or a poisonous snake at some point, but actual incidents or injuries are rare. Poison Ivy is very common, and
hikers should learn how to identify it. Ticks and mosquitoes are also common during hot weather, and there have been a few cases of Lyme disease (from the ticks). The Hantavirus has been found in some mice that inhabit trail shelters, and on a few occasions, the virus has been passed on to humans. Bees, and bee stings, are fairly common during the summer months.
What are "trail shelters", and can I use them?
There are approximately 200 shelters along the AT, spaced about a day's hike apart. Most of them have a water source nearby. They are used on a first come, first served basis. It is not possible to reserve space, but most also have camping areas nearby. The shelters are usually 3-sided, with an open front, a roof, and a raised platform (floor) for sleeping. The smaller ones sleep 6 - 8 hikers; the larger ones can accommodate
18 - 25.
Do I need permits to hike?
Generally, no permits are needed. However, they are required in order to hike through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina / Tennessee, and also in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Thru-hikers can pick up their permits when they enter the parks.
How far do hikers walk each day?
Most hikers hike 8 - 10 miles each day at the beginning of their hike, then slowly work up to 12 - 16 miles per day. Most hikers will eventually have a few 20 - 25 mile days.
How do hikers get water while hiking?
Occasionally, water is scarce on the trail. In the areas where it is scarce, hikers have to pay more attention to water sources listed in the Data Book (available from the Appalachian Trail Conference). Serious dehydration is rare, however, and in most areas water is plentiful. The mountains are usually drenched with rainfall. Almost all trail shelters have a water source close by. It is highly recommended that all water obtained while on the trail be purified with either chemicals or a water filter.
Do I need to carry maps?
The trail is very well marked. Maps are not essential, but some hikers carry them. Most hikers carry the Data Book and the Thru-Hiker's Companion. These publications are available from the Appalachian Trail Conference (see "Links" in the navigation box above).
How much does a thru-hiker's pack weigh?
For a normal mid-March to early-April start, the average weight of a loaded pack (minus food and water) will usually be in the 12 - 22 pound range. In addition, most hikers carry 1 - 2 liters of water and food for 4 - 7 days. Water weighs 2 pounds per liter; food normally weighs 1 1/2 - 2 pounds for each day's supply.
What kind of weather can I expect on the trail?
The temperatures in the spring and fall can be quite cold, and it can get very hot and humid during midsummer. For a normal mid-March start in Georgia, temperatures in the low teens (F) can be expected, and it can (and does) get colder than that. A wind chill of well below zero is not uncommon at that time of year at the higher elevations. Snow is fairly common in early spring, and late fall. During mid-summer, it can get very hot, sometimes exceeding 100 degrees (F). Rain is common.
Does it matter if I start my hike in Georgia or Maine?
Spring comes much earlier in the south than in the north, so north-bounders can begin their hike earlier in the year. About 90% of thru-hikers begin their hike in Georgia. However, to avoid the "crowds", or because they must begin their hike later in the year, a few hikers begin in Maine and hike south.
How much does it cost to hike the trail?
The trail is on public property, and there is no actual charge for hiking. However, in a few areas, there are charges ($3 - $8 US) for shelter use and camping. Concerning expenses while hiking (food, lodging in towns, restaurant meals, etc.), most hikers state that they spent an average of $1.50 - $2.50 per mile.
Where can I get additional information?
A good place to start is the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. Their website has a lot information, and also contains links to many other sites. (See "Links" in the navigation box above).
To see a larger map of the AT, which shows not only the state by state route, but also highway crossings, towns, and national parks that the trail traverses,
click here . This map can be useful in planning, however, it is a large file, and takes a while to load for viewing.
More Maps & Stuff At
Fred & Kathy's Unoffical AT Home Page
I don't believe I've ever met a hiker who didn't enjoy talking about gear. However, gear won't take you 2,000 miles. In fact, its just the opposite, you have to take the gear 2,000 miles.
Most outfitters are far more interested in their cash flow (making a profit) than they are in you or your hike. They are "programmed" to offer the most expensive item in their line, and to entice you to buy it. The most expensive item is not always the best choice. When it comes to hiking, less can be better, and often is. This applies to less expense, as well as less weight.
Also, keep in mind that the AT is a very wet, muddy and gritty place. You will wear out almost all gear items that you take on a thru-hike. If you have an expensive piece of gear that you really like, you may want to consider leaving it home, and buying something less expensive to take in its place.
What gear items to take on a thru-hike of the AT is a very controversial subject, even among veteran hikers. It is best to do a lot of research, and to gather information from several different sources. What works for one person may not work for another. For example, one person will be happy with a tin can for a pot; another will want only the finest and most expensive titanium pot on the market. Therefore, gear will be discussed here only in general terms and no specific or brand names will be recommended.
Boots / Shoes:
One thing that most experienced hikers agree on is the fact that boots are THE most important gear item. The average hiker will take about 5 million steps on a thru-hike, and most of the time he / she will be hiking on rough, steep terrain.
Whatever boots or shoes are selected, care must be taken to insure a proper fit. Also, keep in mind that your feet will swell after you have been on the trail a while, and plan your footwear purchases accordingly. If at all possible, buy your footwear from a reputable outfitter who has the experience and the motivation to ensure that your boots fit properly. If you must buy them on-line or from a catalog, don't be afraid to return them if they don't fit. Just be sure not to wear them outside until you know that you are going to keep them.
Thru-hikers have hiked the AT in everything from cheap tennis shoes to the finest European leather hiking boots, and everything in between. Whatever you select, it will probably be a mistake to take them out of the box, put them on your feet, and immediately begin your thru-hike. To hike in new boots is to invite misery. Be certain that your boots are properly broken in, and that they are comfortable, before you begin your hike.
The latest trend seems to be toward the lighter, inexpensive and comfortable fabric-type boots. Some hikers start out in heavier leather-type boots when the weather is colder, and switch to the fabric boots later on when its warmer. Another consideration is the lightweight trail runner-type shoes. Basically, they are jogging shoes with a Vibram-type lug sole.
Like most other gear items on a thru-hike, the suggestion could be made to select the lightest item that you can be comfortable with.
Most hikers also carry a lightweight pair of shoes to wear in camp and while in towns. These can be anything from water shoes to tennis shoes to sandals. Some hikers carry flip-flops or shower shoes.
For the purposes of this page, the sleeping system will consist of a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad.
The Sleeping Bag:
There are two areas that I don't scrimp on concerning backpacking gear. A sleeping bag is one, and clothes are the other. Both can save your life. During a thru-hike of the AT, most hikers will dance pretty close to hypothermia on more than one occasion, and having the right bag and clothes can make the difference between just being uncomfortable, and being in serious trouble. Beware of any bag containing cotton. Also, this is not the place to try to get by with a $20 sleeping bag bought from a discount department store.
One important fact that is often misunderstood about sleeping bags is this; the bag is not keeping you warm. YOU are keeping the bag warm. The bag cannot generate any heat on its own; it merely traps the body heat that you create. If your body is not generating enough heat by the consumption of calories, you are going to sleep cold; it won't matter what the temperature rating of the bag is.
Whether a down fill bag or a synthetic fill bag is selected is up to each individual hiker; there are advantages and disadvantages to each. If the bag is treated with Dry Loft, or made with a Gore-Tex outer lining (to keep out moisture), all the better.
For those contemplating leaving Springer Mtn. earlier than March 15, I'd strongly recommend a high quality sleeping bag rated to 0 degrees. For those leaving after March 15, a bag rated to 20 degrees PROBABLY will be adequate, but don't expect to sleep toasty warm every night. I would definitely have some mid-weight wicking long underwear, a balaclava, gloves and fleece or wool socks to wear inside the bag. Also, consider using a bag liner to add 5 - 10 degrees of extra warmth. When the weather warms up, the liner can be sent home.
To help keep your sleeping bag dry, consider putting a plastic garbage bag inside the stuff sack, then stuff the bag inside the garbage bag. Also, use a silicone based waterproofing to coat both sides of the stuff sack (it comes in aerosol spray cans, and costs about $3 at Wal-Mart). Also, I'd seal my pack. In addition, I would use a pack cover, and seal both sides of it, too. This will give you 4 separate layers of supposedly weatherproof material between your precious sleeping bag and the elements. It may sound like overkill, but rain water being pushed by a 30 or 40 mph wind can find its way into some very small places.
Most hikers use 2 different bags on a thru-hike. They start with a winter bag, then switch to a lighter bag during mid-summer in the lower elevations of the mid-Atlantic states. Later, they switch back to the winter bag before they enter the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
The Sleeping Pad:
Most thru-hikers carry a sleeping pad. Usually, its either a closed cell foam pad or a self-inflating air mattress. ("Closed cell" means that the foam material will not admit moisture. Even if the pad becomes wet, it can be dried with a bandana, an article of clothing, or a pack towel, and can be used immediately; the moisture stays on the outside of the pad, it doesn't become saturated.)
Some hikers carry a full length pad, and others carry a 3/4 length model. The longer ones provide more comfort; the shorter ones weigh less. The foam models are less comfortable than the air mattresses, but the air mattresses are easily punctured. A "Hot Bond" repair kit is available for the air mattresses. The kits work well, but it is often difficult to find a small leak in an air mattress. About the only way to do it is to put the mattress under water (in a creek, pond or bath tub), and watch for escaping air bubbles. The leak can then be marked with a pen or marker and repaired. Concerning foam pads, in my opinion the type that has the "egg carton" design and folds up into a square is the most comfortable.
On a very cold night, there can be nearly 100 degrees difference between your body temperature and the temperature of the ground. In cold weather, it is essential to have a pad under you to insulate your body from the ground.
Like other areas in backpacking, what type pad to choose is a personal one. I'd suggest using the lightest and least expensive model that you can be comfortable with.
Tents / Tarps:
Almost all thru-hikers carry a lightweight tent or tarp. The days of being able to depend on staying in the shelters are long gone; the trail is just too crowded now.
The type shelter that you decide to carry can be anything from a simple, inexpensive tarp costing $20 to a full size one or two person tent costing several hundred dollars or more. A few hikers carry bivy bags, however, they are too confining for most hikers. Most hikers try to keep the weight of their shelter at 2 - 3 pounds or less, though a few 4 and 5 pound tents will be seen.
As usual, it’s a trade off concerning weight, comfort and expense. The trail has been hiked using all kinds of shelters; everything from shower curtains to ponchos to extravagant tents. A high quality one person tent weighing 2 - 3 pounds is probably the "middle ground". However, ultralight shelters are becoming increasingly popular, and "tarp-tents" weighing a pound or less are now being used.
Water Filters & Such:
It is highly recommended that all water obtained while on the trail be purified before drinking. Most hikers use a water filter, and some use chemicals such as iodine or bleach.
Water filters are probably the best bet (when they work), but they are heavy (usually 10 - 18 ounces), expensive and problematic. They cost anywhere from $40 to $200, and some common problems include broken pump handles and clogged filters.
The chemical solutions weigh far less and have no filters or moving parts. However, for some, there are health considerations. Many hikers don't trust the chemicals, and don't like the taste that they leave in the water after its been treated. For those who choose to use chemicals, a crushed vitamin C tablet or powdered drink mix added to the treated water can greatly improve the taste.
The two type packs most commonly seen on the trail are internal frame and external frame. The internal frame models are, by far, the most popular. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and what type pack you choose is up to you.
The internal frame models are generally more expensive than the external frame models. Previously, the internals were deemed to be the lighter of the two, but that trend seems to be changing. The internals seem to be getting heavier; the less popular externals seem to be staying about the same.
Sales hype aside, you don't need a 7 pound, $300 pack to hike the AT. If you choose wisely, you can find models that cost half as much, and weigh far less. In fact, some of the ultralight models weigh less than a pound, and cost less than $150. They are usually "frameless" (no internal or external frame at all), and some models depend on the sleeping pad to provide some shape and form.
Most hikers also carry a nylon pack cover for use during wet weather. They generally cost $20 - $25.
Whatever pack you buy, make sure it fits your torso, and that it is comfortable. What size pack you need will depend on how much gear you take with you. Try to talk with as many experienced hikers as possible before purchasing a pack. A good pack will make your hike a lot more enjoyable. A bad one can put you off the trail.
A few thru-hikers try to subsist on cold food, but most carry something to cook with. Basically, there are 3 different kinds of stoves commonly seen on the AT; simple, alcohol burning stoves (some homemade), fuel tablet stoves, and the more expensive and heavier white gas / unleaded gasoline "flame jet" models. Also, a few propane/butane canister stoves are seen, but most hikers don't like carrying the metal fuel canisters . Also, the canisters are expensive and hard to find.
Before selecting a stove, consider the availability of fuel and exactly what kind of food that you will be cooking. Most hardware stores near the AT carry denatured alcohol and Coleman-type fuel (white gas). Also, unleaded gasoline can be purchased at gas stations. Coleman fuel can also be purchased by the ounce at some AT hostels and hardware stores in trail towns.
Neither Esbit or hexamine fuel tablets can generally be purchased along the way. The most popular way to obtain them is to buy a large amount before beginning the hike, and have them sent to post offices near the trail.
Whatever stove you select, remember that they can be dangerous. Be very careful with them, and NEVER cook inside your tent.
Most hikers also carry a small pot, lid, cup or mug, a couple of spoons, matches and a few Bic-type lighters.
First Aid/Hygiene Kits:
Most hikers carry just the basics, though some get really extravagant. First Aid/Hygiene kits can weigh an ounce or two, or over a pound. It depends on the needs and experience level of each individual hiker.
Some items commonly seen on the trail are:
Tooth brush & paste
Small wash cloth
Small sterile bandages
It is imperative that each person properly dispose of body waste. Most hikers carry a plastic trowel for digging small holes, toilet paper and soap or pre-moistened towelettes for hand washing.
Some hikers don’t carry a trowel, and try to "kick in" a hole with their boot heel. This may work in certain areas where the soil is soft, but generally it is ineffective. In my opinion, it is the hikers who don't carry a trowel that contribute greatly to visual pollution and poor sanitation on the trail. Body waste that has been improperly disposed of is one of the most disgusting sights on the AT.
Select a spot well away from the trail and water sources. Use the trowel to dig a small hole about 6 inches deep. (Used toilet paper should go into the hole that was dug, along with body waste.) After use, re-cover the hole and "naturalize" the area with leaves and forest debris so that there is no trace that you were ever there.
Some shelters have privies. If there is a privy, it should be used.
Posting An On-Line Journal
In the last few years, posting a thru-hike journal on-line while a person is hiking has become very popular. It works like this:
Before leaving for the trail, the hiker secures a web site or journal space, talks someone into transcribing, and sends the URL (web address) for the web site or journal page to all his/her friends and relatives.
When the hiker gets to a trail town, he / she sends the journal entries via the post office to the transcriber, and the transcriber uploads the journal entries to the web site. The journal entries can then be seen by everyone who has a PC and the URL.
Several places on the web offer free web sites and journal space. Even if you don't know a thing about web design or HTML coding, it is still possible to build a site and post a journal.
AT hikers can burn over 6,000 calories per day. Since most of us cannot carry enough food to produce 6,000 calories per day, we lose weight on the trail. Men seem to lose more weight than women. I lost 17 pounds on my thru-hike, and I think that is about average for men.
When selecting food for the trail, try to find the foods with the highest calories and fat content, while keeping in mind how much it weighs. Vegetable oil and peanut butter are among the best foods concerning the "calorie-to-weight" ratio.
Most hikers select foods that prepare easily and quickly with a minimum of cooking time. On the trail, quantity is far more important than quality. Don't expect gourmet meals. Most hikers just want reasonably priced, easily prepared, hot and filling food.
Most thru-hikers find that commercially prepared freeze dried foods do not contain enough calories and fat to sustain them. In addition, this type food is very expensive.
More and more hikers seem to be dehydrating large quantities of food at home, and having it sent to their post office stops along the trail. Also, many hikers are finding that they can resupply at supermarkets in trail towns.
Previously, many hikers would buy large quantities of food before they left home, and have heavy food boxes mailed to them. This can be expensive, and many people have found that it is difficult to know 4 or 5 months in advance what they will want to eat. For instance, I started my hike eating Lipton rice dinners each night, but I got sick of them after a few weeks. If I had bought a 6 month supply, many would have been wasted.
On a thru-hike, there are really only 2 "set" meals; breakfast and supper. Lunches and snacks kind of run together. Most hikers will find that it is necessary to eat something every hour or so while they are actively hiking.
The following food items represent some of the things that I like to eat while I'm on the trail, and I'm listing them just as examples. Its important for each person to determine their own food needs.
Pop-Tarts, instant oatmeal, instant grits, breakfast cereals with sweetener and powdered milk (Grape Nuts, Cracklin Oat Bran, Granola, Shredded Wheat)
Instant rice, cous-cous, Knorr-type soup/bean mixes, ramen (cooked), ramen (instant), Stove Top Dressing, canned chicken, sardines, tuna, instant mashed potatoes, pasta, Lipton noodle or rice dinners
Bagels, english muffins, pitas, flour tortillas
Lunches, Snacks & Desserts:
Granola bars, toaster pastries, cookies, trail mix, fudge cakes, peanuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, instant pudding, fig newtons, M&M’s, sunflower seeds, hard candy, crackers, candy bars, cheese
Coffee, Kool-Aid, instant juices, instant hot chocolate
Sweetener, vegetable oil, Butter-Buds, Lipton instant soup, bouillon
cubes, hot sauce, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, powdered milk
Salt, pepper, lemon/pepper, Italian seasoning, minced onion, cinnamon, garlic salt
The trend now is to begin thru-hikes earlier in the year. I believe this is mainly because of the number of people using the trail. Hikers want to "beat the crowds". This means that more hikers are beginning their hike in late February or early March, and many are unprepared for the cold weather that they encounter.
During the late February to mid March period, temperatures of just above 0 (Farenheit) can and do occur in north Georgia and North Carolina. The winds can be as high as 50 - 60 mph on the peaks. Rain, freezing rain, snow, sleet and all combinations of precipitation can occur.
Most hikers use what is called the layering system. The 3 layers used are called the wicking layer, the insulating layer and the windproof/weatherproof layer. The wicking layer is usually some type of long underwear made of 90% - 100% polyester. The wicking layer will transport moisture (perspiration and rain) away from the skin, where it will evaporate. Moisture held close to the skin (for instance, with cotton fabrics) can cause hypothermia, which can be deadly. Deaths from hypothermia occur on the AT occasionally; it is a very real threat. The next layer is the insulating layer, and it traps body heat. The insulating layer is usually polar fleece, or a similar material. On the outside is the weatherproof/windproof layer, usually nylon. This keeps wind and rain out. Of course, staying warm also depends upon having warm socks, gloves and headwear.
Almost all hikers wear one set of clothing during the day, and have another set to change into at the end of the hiking day. I call these the "sleeping/lounging" clothes. The clothes that are hiked in are usually wet and dirty, and most hikers choose not to wear them in camp, or in their sleeping bag.
What follows is the minimum clothes that I would take on a thru-hike of the AT that began in Georgia in late February to mid-March. When the weather warms up, clothing can be sent home, and lighter clothing can be obtained:
1 pair mid-weight wicking long underwear (for sleeping/lounging)
1 pair light-weight wicking long underwear (for hiking)
1 nylon shorts (to wear over wicking long underwear)
1 mid-weight polar fleece jacket
1 weatherproof/windproof nylon parka
1 weatherproof/windproof nylon rain pants
1 pair thermax glove liners
1 pair insulated weatherproof/windproof gloves or mittens
1 midweight polar fleece balaclava
1 wool or polyester "watch" cap
1 pair wool or polar fleece socks
2 pair nylon liner socks
How To Prepare
Preparing for a thru-hike of the AT is quite an undertaking. To begin with, the AT is over 2,000 miles long, and most hikers state that their expenses while on the trail amount to at least $1.50 per mile. Therefore, most of us have to come up with over $3,000 to hike the trail. Secondly, we all have homes and property that must be looked after while we are gone. We have to get into hiking shape. Gear must be bought, food must be planned for, travel arrangements must be made, and an itinerary must be prepared so that we can receive mail from those at home.
One should also prepare for the changes that come with a long distance hike. Basically, we must be prepared to give up, for a while, everything and everyone that we care about in order to hike the trail. Hiking the AT is not just a long backpacking trip; it is a change in lifestyle. We have to say good-bye to our home, our loved ones, our friends, our routine and basically everything that is familiar to us.
Do you really want to hike the AT badly enough to give up your present lifestyle, only to endure day after day of rain, cold and wind? Can you stand to go for a week or more without a bath, wearing the same wet, filthy clothes day after day? Can you endure hiking 12 - 16 miles per day on steep terrain, in the mud, with raw blisters on your feet while carrying a fully loaded backpack? Can you give up your friends and loved ones for 6 months? This is not meant to discourage anyone from hiking the AT. However, these type things must be considered if you are going to enter the world of long distance hiking.
If you decide to go ahead with your hike, I'd suggest getting the Data Book, and the Thru-Hiker's Companion from the Appalachian Trail Conference. These publications will aid you in planning an itinerary and your mail drops ("mail drops" are post offices along the way where you will receive mail and CARE packages from family and friends).
After that, you will need to make decisions concerning your gear. If money is a problem, check the classified ads in your local newspaper for used hiking equipment. Check out some yard sales and stores that sell used items. If you want, place some "want to buy" ads in newpapers and on some outdoor oriented websites.
At least 3 - 4 months prior to your hike, I'd suggest starting the physical conditioning aspect of preparation. If you possibly can, put on a loaded backpack and head for some mountain trails. If you have to work, and live in a city, there are still some things you can do. Train with a daypack full of books in a city park. Later, try to find some stairs to use. These could be in a stadium or perhaps the fire escape stairs in a tall building.
I'd also talk with as many 2,000 milers as I possibly could. Most of them will be happy to talk about their hike, and their input can be invaluable. Get as many viewpoints as possible concerning gear, dealing with loneliness and the weather, how to treat blisters, what each person would do differently if he/she hiked again, etc.
As the time draws near for you to hike, expect to get "antsy". By the time your departure date rolls around, you will probably be bursting with anticipation and excitement.
As difficult as hiking the AT is, keep in mind that it is more than worth it. Be prepared for changes. You will find that there are still a lot of decent folks in the world. You'll see that more is not always better. Concerning material wealth and possessions, you may be amazed at how very little it takes to make you happy. You will probably gain a new respect for the natural world. And as someone once said, "I'll never trust anything again that travels more than 3 miles per hour". In short, the trail will repay many times over the pain and discomfort that is required in order to hike it. I envy you; and I wish I was going, too. Hang on to your dream.
What To Expect
Changing from the world of schedules, thermastats, public transportation, clean clothes, indoor plumbing, electricity and locked doors to the AT can take some getting used to. Also, while you are emotionally adjusting to these changes, you will be punishing your body by carrying a fully loaded backpack up and down mountains in all kinds of different weather.
Some hikers seem to underestimate the difficulty of the trail and the terrain it traverses. I call this the "City Park Syndrome". They think the AT will resemble a nature trail in a municipal park, or that it is some kind of glorified golf cart path. It is neither. It is a very rugged mountain trail which traverses some of the most beautiful scenery in the eastern U.S. However, it is VERY steep in places. Often, it is muddy and rocky. Occasionally, it is level and lined with leaves and soft pine needles. But not very often.
Do not expect your hike to be a solitary wilderness experience. Sadly, most true wilderness disappeared from the eastern U.S. at least 200 years ago. What the AT provides is a path that is mostly in the woods. It also provides the illusion of wilderness. However, you will never be too far from roads and civilization. In addition, the AT is the most popular hiking trail in the world. I believe that over 10 million people hike some part of it each year.
Also, each year approximately 1,500 - 2,000 hikers attempt to hike the trail's entire length. It is doubtful that you will have more than a few days during your entire journey when you do not see at least a few other hikers. Hiking the AT is a very social experience, and to most folks, that is part of the attraction.
Expect to be discouraged a lot. Expect to hear yourself asking the "why" question, as in, "Why am I doing this?" When you start to ask yourself the "why" question, it is best to have an answer. Before you ever take the first step on the trail, I suggest writing down your reasons for hiking. When the "why" question hits, and it will, hopefully you will already have your answers. The "why" question has put many a hiker off the trail. When the hike stopped being fun, they started asking themselves why they were hiking, and they had no satisfactory answer. A few days later, they were home.
A well known long distance hiker and author, Colin Fletcher, once said that there is a predictable sequence of events whenever we enter the outdoor world for long periods of time. He said that first we examine our surroundings. After that, we examine our pack and its contents (as in "what to leave in / what to leave out"). Then we examine ourselves. I believe he is correct. Expect to do some soul searching. Most likely, you will find out some things about yourself that you didn't know before. By the time you finish your hike, it is possible that you will be a different person, and your value system may be altered dramatically.
Concerning weather on the trail, expect cold, snow and rain at the beginning. Later on, expect a beautiful spring with rain. Then there will be heat and rain. And finally, you will come full circle. If you stay on the trail long enough, you will finish in approximately the same conditions in which you started; cold, snow and rain.
If you should have a true emergency, such as a genuinely disabling injury or illness, there will be others around to help you. Someone will probably have a cell phone, and will make a 911 call. If no one has a cell phone, someone will go for help. However, don't expect anyone out there to actively be in the business of saving you from yourself. If you have selected the wrong gear, or made mistakes concerning food or clothing, most likely you will have to endure the consequences. Everyone else will be hurting, hungry and struggling to stay on the trail, too. You may get a sympathetic ear, but no one is going to offer to carry any gear for you, loan you any additional clothing, or give you any food or money. There are exceptions, but generally everyone has to make it on their own, or they go home.
However, the trail has a way of bringing out the best in people. Most likely, you will make some friends that you will stay in touch with the rest of your life. After you have hiked with someone for a while, you probably will consider them a friend. There is a "hiker bond" on the trail that seems to bring folks together.
Expect it to be the hardest thing that you have ever done. It is not "fun" in the same way that going out to dinner and a movie with a friend is fun. Its far too difficult for that. However, as well known hiker and author Ed Garvey once said, it is the adventure of a lifetime.